Thursday 20 August 2020

A message for our time - Haggai 1:1-15

I preached the following message at our church’s evening service on Sunday, 16 August.

The British Museum reopens following its closure for COVID on 27 August - and you can book a timed ticket in advance.

If you are planning a trip then one of its most famous exhibits is a clay artefact called the Cyrus cylinder (above).

It was found by British archaeologists in the ruins of Babylon in 1879 and measures about 20 centimetres in length and 10 centimetres in diameter.

The writing on it is in Akkadian cuneiform and it records the entry of the Persian King Cyrus into the capital city of Babylon in 539 BC.

Cyrus was regarded as a peaceful and competent successor to the tyrant Babylonian King Nabonidus whom he replaced.

He dreamed up an ingenious way to gain the loyalty of an extremely diverse multicultural society by giving each national and cultural group the freedom to carry out their own religious practices without interference.

And so, one of his first actions, as recorded on the cylinder, was to equip peoples who had been enslaved during the Babylonian exile to go back to their homelands and re-establish their nations with his own protection and support.

And so it was that the Jewish exiles in 538 BC returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city.
Among this group of exiles were two young men called Zerubbabel and Joshua.

Zerubbabel was a royal prince and a direct descendant of King David and the Kings of Judah.
Joshua was a high priest.

Both wanted to resurrect their country after a time of great difficulty.

We first learn about Zerubbabel and Joshua in the book of Ezra where they are mentioned in chapters 3 and 5.

They also feature in the book of Zechariah which immediately follows Haggai chronologically.

The original temple built by Solomon 400 years earlier had been demolished by the Babylonians in 587BC when the Jews were exiled.

They began the task with great enthusiasm and built an altar along with the foundation of the temple but then, because of the opposition they faced from the locals, and because the task was difficult, they stopped.

It was 16 years after this that the events which we are considering tonight took place.

Haggai was a Jewish prophet who was sent by God to encourage Joshua, Zerubbabel and others to start rebuilding the temple.

Chapter 1 of Haggai begins on the first day of the sixth month of the second year of King Darius, King of Persia, the grandson of Cyrus.

That's the 29th of August 520 BC. Seldom are biblical dates identified so specifically.

The chapter ends - just 23 days later - on the 24th day of the same month or the 21st of September 520 BC.

So, these events took place almost exactly 2,540 years ago in Jerusalem.

Now the people had rationalised their inactivity over the temple – look at verse 2: “the time is not yet come for the Lords house to be built”, they said.

And yet, they seemed to be able to find plenty of time – verse 4 – for building their own houses while, we're told, the Lord’s house – the temple - remained a ruin.

Not only this, but the restoration of their own houses had been done in a rather lavish fashion.

The expression used here - “panelled houses” - is usually connected with royal dwellings which had cedar panelling.

So, they hadn't spared any extravagance.

And so, Haggai urges them to “give careful thought to their ways” and directly links the difficulties that they are facing with the fact that they have been unfaithful to God.

They were concerned about their own homes, but not his.

They were consumed with their own affairs and neglecting his.

The way they had spent their time and money laid bare their true priorities.

Haggai tells them that their poor harvests and the fact that they don't have enough to eat and drink or adequate clothes to wear are the result of God removing his blessing as indeed he had promised he would do in the Jewish law - see Deuteronomy 28:38-39.

“You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it”.

In other words, their money wasn't stretching far enough.

Of course, when too much money is chasing not enough goods and services we know that that leads to inflation. The money has less and less buying power.

So the nation of Judah was experiencing economic recession and inflation.

God tells them explicitly - verse 11 - that the lack of rain on their fields is because of a drought which he has personally ordered to curse those three vital products - grain, new wine and oil – which were the backbone of the economy.

This affected not just the people but their cattle as well. Why was this?

“Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house” – verse 9.

You see, it wasn't so much what they did, but rather what they neglected to do. These were sins of omission.

Now throughout biblical history people have reacted in different ways to prophetic words.

Many of the prophets were ignored, persecuted or even killed because people didn't appreciate the messages they brought.

However, this is one of those rare occasions when the prophetic words are taken to heart.

We are told that Zerubbabel, Joshua and indeed the whole remnant of the people – verse 14 - “obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the Prophet Haggai”.

They recognised that God had sent him and they feared the Lord.

Haggai, after his word of exhortation, brings a strong word of encouragement to tell them that the Lord is with them - verse 13.

And we are told that the Lord “stirred up the spirit” of Zerubbabel and Joshua and so they began the work of rebuilding the temple.

So, what can we learn from this seldom read obscure passage in the Old Testament that is relevant to us in 21st century coronavirus Britain?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

First, it reminds us that God is absolutely sovereign over the course of history.

He rules over political, economic and environmental events.

In fact, he does everything according to his own timetable.

The rise and fall of nations, the seasons, droughts and floods, crop failures and indeed even the price of food, drink and clothing are under his direct control.

Yes, even coronavirus with all its dramatic effects on politics, employment, economics and health.

These men were simply pawns working out a divine plan.

The Prophet Jeremiah, as remembered by the Prophet Daniel, had prophesied that the exile would last 70 years.

The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem along with the original temple in 587BC.

And according to the divine timetable, the temple was eventually completed 70 years later in 516BC.

It was indeed the right time.

God is sovereign and his purposes can never be thwarted.

He is always in control. Isn’t that a comforting thought!

Second, this account reminds us of the importance of prophecy.

Had it not been for Haggai’s timely intervention the Jews may never have questioned their behaviour.

It had to be pointed out to them.

They were blind to it.

The Prophet points out the sin, explains its results, tells them what they need to do to change and then encourages them to do it.

Now, of course, there are differences between Old and New Testament prophets.

But we know, from references in the book of Acts and the letters of the New Testament, that prophetic ministry was an important part of the early church, and there's no indication that this kind of ministry is no longer relevant.

It is noteworthy, that in our present time of national crisis, there have been very few prophetic Christian voices calling the church or the nation to repentance.

Third, we need to think about how the lessons of this chapter might apply to us in 21st century Britain.

As Christians we do not have a temple, and our church buildings, which function largely as a place of meeting, teaching and worship, have a very different purpose than that of the temple.

So, key question, what is the equivalent of the temple today, and what does “building the temple” mean for us.

Thankfully the New Testament is very clear about this.

The Apostle Peter tells us that the equivalent of the temple today is the people of God.

1 Peter 2: 4 : “as you come to him, the living stone - rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him - you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

So, the temple is now God's people. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone and all of us are “living stones”.

What then does it mean then to build the temple?

Ephesians 4:11-16 tells us that God gave “some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists and some to be pastors and teachers…”


“To prepare Gods people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Just two verses later “speaking the truth and love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

The two metaphors used for the church in the New Testament are the temple and the human body.

In each illustration we see that the church is made up of component parts which, when each plays its role well, build up all the others.

Now as Christians in the free church non-conformist tradition, we understand very well the concept of the priesthood of all believers.

We do not believe that only some members of the body of Christ are there to minister. Each one of us has a gift that we are called to use for the common good.

Some of these gifts are gifts of a service, and some of these gifts are gifts of speaking, as the Apostle Peter makes very clear in his first epistle - 1 Peter 4:9-11.

“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.”

This is, argues Peter, what “loving each other deeply” looks like in practice.

And so, this passage is a challenge to each one of us to ask if we are using our God-given gifts to help others.

Or are we rather so consumed with our own affairs, perhaps literally even our own homes, that we have become distracted from our duty to serve one another?

I heard it said recently that one of the purposes God had in sending this virus was to help the church grow up in using our gifts of speaking and service.

This is perhaps no more clearly evident than in the family.

Are we taking seriously our responsibility to build up our husbands and wives, our children, our parents, or those in our extended family.

Or are these things that we delegate to the pastor, the elders, youth leaders and Sunday school teachers.

And how seriously do we take our responsibility to build up our brothers and sisters in the wider body of Christ?

Maybe it is the gift of teaching, preaching, prophecy or pastoral care.

But maybe it is gifts of the kind that Paul lists in passages like Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12:
Gifts of service, encouragement, contributing to the needs of others, leadership, governance, showing mercy, giving generously, administration or offering hospitality.

What is it that each one of us has that we could be using more effectively to build up our fellow believers in Christ, which we are maybe neglecting to use because we've become self-absorbed?

It's interesting to see which companies have done best throughout this present time of quarantine and isolation.

Apart from goldmining companies and those IT companies who market technology like zoom, it is DIY companies, gardening centres, companies which make Warhammer figures or computer games, cycling equipment, sportswear, those marketing home movies.

Because for many people in Britain these things have expanded to fill the void created by the virus.

Perhaps, as Christians, we pride ourselves that we haven’t been tempted into drugs, alcohol or pornography – if in fact we haven’t – but have these softer more subtle things had the same effect of robbing us of our passion for God himself and for his people?

Perhaps this chapter is a challenge to us to examine our lives to look at what, during this time of COVID, has distracted us and consumed our time and money such that we have neglected our responsibilities to one another.

Now of course it is not wrong to be a good steward of one’s own property.

There's nothing inherently sinful about a panelled house, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with DIY, hobbies, gardening, watching films, playing games or whatever.

These things are all God given and part of a healthy balanced lifestyle.

However, when they so focus our time and energy, that we cease to notice the needs around us within the church - and I'm talking not just about the local church but also the global Church of God - much of which is facing extraordinary difficulty at this time in history, then these simple and innocent pastimes can become the very thing that robs us of the fullness of life in Christ, and stops us demonstrating the love and unity with one another in the body of Christ, which is such a powerful magnet to draw unbelievers.

Have we allowed ourselves to become too comfortable, so that we're simply not seeing and hearing, and therefore not responding to the need around us.

That is the challenge of this extraordinary short passage.

Fourth, and finally, we see in this passage, God's extraordinary generosity, mercy and patience with his people.

He doesn't castigate them. He simply points out the fact that they have become distracted and invites them to re-evaluate their priorities.

We often long and pray for God to act, but this passage beautifully illustrates the fact that God often acts in response to prayer through calling us his people to use the gifts that he has already given us to do good in the church and in the world.

The answer to Haggai’s exhortation was not a miraculous intervention from the heavens.

It was simply God’s people taking their responsibilities seriously and getting to work doing his work.

What are the gifts God has given you and me that we are not using to the full?

What responsibilities to God’s people are we neglecting?

What has distracted us and is consuming our time, energy and money at this time of national crisis?

And what is it that we need to do to be like the people of Israel, under Haggai, Zerubbabel and Joshua, who took their responsibilities seriously to do God’s work?

Our final hymn, “Lord of the Church”, echoes these thoughts – why don’t we make it our prayer of rededication?

Lord of the church we pray for our renewing
To bring us nearer what a church should be

Lord of the church we seek a Father's blessing
In Christ to live and love and serve and care

Lord of the church we long for our uniting
True to one calling by one vision stirred

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